LinkedIn: Play the Game, Not the Odds – What Marketers Can Learn About Data From March Madness

By David Lang, Chief Content Officer, Mindshare North America

March Madness is my favorite time of year. It’s that magical time when the underdog beats Goliath, little known players conquer center stage, and upsets are the norm – making data geeks and odds makers continually scratch their heads.

It also makes me reflect on our industry and the daily battle we fight between data and creativity. Why? I believe there’s a clear analogy between what we are facing in the advertising and media industry and the evolution of how data has been used in professional sports.

More than ever, we hear about how data can unlock a treasure trove of marketing and creative. This is true. But I do believe the data crazed pendulum has swung to an extreme, minimizing high concept creative ideas and, at times, the creative process. By looking at the world of sports and the friction between the numbers game and the physical game, we can find some answers in the battle we face every day between data and creativity.

For example, the book (and movie) Moneyball, brought the notion of data directly onto the playing field. The story follows how the Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane used data to hire different types of players in order to win—and to save money. This whole exercise was partly driven by cost-cutting initiatives within the organization (sound familiar?). The data clearly identified what new and different skill sets were most important in winning baseball games. Billy Beane and his handful of creative thinkers/rule breakers ended up transforming how data is used in the sport of baseball.

Having said that, no matter what data any team or any sports league might subscribe to, you still have to play the game. Data and statistics can give you a higher percentage of winning, but the players have to actually execute. If analytics drove the decision-making of Tommy Lasorda in 1988, Kirk Gibson and his two hobbled legs might never have taken that historic trip around the bases in Dodger Stadium. Or think about all the upsets in March Madness. Did data pick Villanova to beat the 35-2 Georgetown Hoyas in the NCAA Championship game in 1985? Or what about Jimmy Valvano’s NC State team upsetting Houston’s infamous Phi Slama Jama squad in 1983?

So how does this relate to media and advertising? Our industry is looking at new types of data every day. Advertisers are looking at data to win in more efficient and agile ways, whether it is addressable TV, DCO, conversational intelligence or voice-enabled platforms, just to name a few. Unfortunately, many advertisers are looking at data as a silver bullet and are missing the point: you still have to play the game.

Just as players have to play the game to win, in our industry you need the right multi-platform creative idea in order to win. And it’s not just about the idea, it’s the execution and the distribution of creative assets across channels in a way that adds value or is relevant to a consumer. It’s a complex “game,” and just like in sports, you need all the right elements—data, players, creativity, and a bit of luck—in order to win big. Just like on the field of play, the intangible aspects of this complex game, like culture, can make the difference between winning and losing.

Over the past few years, we have had the opportunity to work with Steph Curry. His Golden State Warriors were one of the first teams to use sophisticated data in crafting their squad and optimizing its performance. They have now clearly become one of the most talented teams in the league. But we’ve all seen teams that have better talent and still lose. In talking with Steph when the cameras weren’t rolling, he constantly talked about the culture, the unselfish play, and the sacrificing of individual accomplishment for the team’s success.

In other words, the main reason why the Warriors win so consistently is because of how they play as a team: they make the extra pass and play unselfish basketball. It makes them infinitely more dangerous. They are a combination of the right data, great talent, creativity on the court and unselfish culture. The parallels to our industry are staring us in the face.

In our industry, just as in sports, it’s crucial to focus not just on data but also on the idea and the execution. While data can lead to the right consumer-focused, actionable insight, as well as a sharply focused targeted media plan, data does not play the game: people do. The human aspect of creativity—the execution of a concept, the unselfish collaboration of creativity in real time, your gut instincts—are just as important. How we play the game—or the creative process in bringing an idea to life—as well as the culture we play in are the essential components in creating game-changing creative campaigns.

In the end, this heavyweight fight between data and creativity has no victor. They need each other to succeed. And while data is more essential than ever, it is not a silver bullet—people, culture and creativity are the keys to winning championships in our industry.

Read it on LinkedIn as well.